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  • Writer's pictureSerendipityPTW

Pickleball and Low Back Issues


While at the pickleball courts the other day, I overheard a conversation between two players. One pointed out that his low back pain had recently flared up over the last few weeks. “Ohhhh, low back pain. Rest is about the only thing you can do for that,” his friend confidently exclaims.

I cringe slightly on the inside.


I think that most pickleball players genuinely want to help each other and assume that they’re giving good advice. However, unless you really have a good understanding of human anatomy, injuries, and rehab, it’s possible for this advice to do more harm than good.


In the case of chronic low back pain above, prolonged rest is more likely to make symptoms last for a longer time, and may contribute to other issues as well.


That’s why I want to take some time to talk about how to keep your back healthy out on the courts, and the steps to take if you do get an injury. It’s a monster of a topic, so I’ll break this one up over the course of a few weeks.


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#1: Pay Attention to Tightness


Interestingly enough, tightness in the back often begins before an individual starts to experience pain. If you notice that your back is starting to stiffen up in any direction, don’t panic, but don’t totally disregard it either. This stiffness may indicate that something, whether it’s a joint, disc, or otherwise, is a little ‘stuck’ or not moving quite as smoothly as it should be. Left unchecked, this is something that can potentially worsen and transition into a full episode of back pain or sciatica over time.

Good spinal extension and rotation are especially important in order to play an optimal pickleball game. Subpar mobility means that a player is going to have to compensate, and that’ll result in more missed shots and slower reaction times on certain returns.


On this topic, it can also be quite helpful to move your back in all the directions that you may need to use out on the courts before you begin a game. You don’t have to dedicate a lot of time to it, but bend down, bend back, and rotate side to side a few times before you play to get your body a little more prepared for what it’ll need to do out on the courts.


#2: Limit Reaching Back for the Ball


This is something that I often see in newer players, as well as people who are starting to get fatigued during play. When the ball is coming at you, you should be positioning yourself such that you can hit the ball while keeping your weight shifted forward.


When you lean back to hit the ball, several things happen. You’ll be rapidly extending and rotating your spine to whack the ball, which can contribute to a back spasm or other similar issue. On the whole, your stance will become considerably less balanced as well. From a play standpoint, you’ll also be more likely to make an unforced error with your return, and you’ll be in a suboptimal position to return whatever’s coming next.


As with most things in life, moderation is the key. If you truly find yourself in a pinch and this is the only way that you can attempt a return, trust your judgment and do what feels right. However, many players use this as a regular method of returning shots, and these are the people who are more likely to run into issues with injuries (in addition to wondering why they aren’t getting better as quickly as they would like to).


#3: Let Your Legs Do the Talking


As you maneuver around the court, keep in mind that your legs should be doing the lion’s share of the work, regardless of whether you’re going forward, back, or side to side. If your legs aren’t moving during most of your play, you’re probably doing a lot of over-reaching and rapid spine movements in order to keep yourself in the game.


During a game of pickleball, your back’s primary responsibility should be to provide a solid foundation of stability to allow you to have greater power, control, and readiness for what comes next. Using your back to get to the ball is not only more likely to put you in a position of injury, but your opponent is going to have many more opportunities to place the ball somewhere you won’t be prepared to get to.


In some cases, back overuse is just a habit that will improve with a combination of time and diligent practice. However, I’ve also met quite a number of players out there who overuse their back to make up for another issue, such as knee pain or weakness (if a person is going to avoid bending their knees, the motion they need has to come from somewhere else!). As is the case with any issue, finding out the root cause and resolving that is the key to getting effective and lasting results.


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Because there are so many different areas to cover regarding pickleball and back health, I’m going to end the topic here for today. I’ll go over some more important points in another post within the next couple of weeks, so keep an eye out for that!


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Need help with an issue such as low back pain or sciatica? Or do you just want to make sure that your back is as strong and flexible as it should be to keep you playing your best pickleball game? As a doctor of physical therapy and owner of Serendipity Physical Therapy and Wellness, I’m happy to work with you to help with all of these kinds of needs. (I do house calls around the general Naples area!)


I help pickleball players with a wide variety of issues, from injury rehab to improving flexibility and reducing the likelihood of getting hurt on the courts.


If you’re new, you can check out more of my advice and content here: https://www.serendipityptw.com/blog.


If there is anything I can help you with, or you have questions, please give me a call at (239) 232-8155, or send me an email at Contact@SerendipityPTW.com. I would love to see how I can help get you moving at your best!

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